Monique Susskind Goldberg
Who is a Cohen and Levi
Is there a difference between a Cohen and Levi? Is it passed down from either parent to either a daughter or son?
Levi is the name of one of the 12 sons of Jacob, for whom the 12 tribes are named (see, for instance, Genesis 49:2). The tribe of Levi was responsible for all the work in the Tabernacle (see Numbers 1:49-50) and then in the Temple. Among the Levites, Aaron and his descendants were chosen to be the Priests of the Tabernacle (Exodus 28:1) or the Temple; they are the Cohanim.
The Levites and Cohanim did not have land; the other tribes had to provide for them and for their family.
A descendant of the tribe of Levi is a Levi.
A descendant of Aaron is a Cohen.
All other Jews are called Israel.
Being a Cohen, Levi or Israel is determined by the father and transmitted to the son.
After the destruction of the Temple and the cancellation of the sacrifices, belonging to the Levi or to the Cohen is no longer of significance in daily life. However, Levi and Cohen do retain some marks of honor:
1) They are called first to the Torah: first Cohen, then Levi
2) The Cohanim bless the community on certain occasions
3) The first born of a Cohen or of a Levi do not have to be redeemed.
These honors are given to a male Cohen and Levi, because the daughter of a Cohen or a Levi never had a role in the Temple; they were just allowed to partake of the food offered to their father. Some Conservative synagogues have decided to give those honors also to the daughter of a Cohen or a Levi.
There are also some restrictions imposed on the Cohanim, even nowadays:
1) As traditionally Cohanim had to be pure for their service in the Temple, it is still the tradition that Cohanim do not go to cemetery other than for their close family.
2) According to the Orthodox tradition, Cohanim are not allowed to marry converted or divorced women. However, the Conservative and Reform Movements tend to be lenient on this point, especially about a Cohen marrying a convert.
I hope I have given you the information you were looking for.
Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg